Vince: With your photographs, your videos, and your perfomances you’ve had a real impact on our ideas about femininity and, I think, masculinity because of the way you’ve pulled that into it. I’m curious about what influences you’ve had on your ideas about femininity and masculinity over the years. What were the defining influences, if there are any?
Madonna: I think a lot of the art that I have has influenced me in that way. I have a photograph in my office that Man Ray did of Lee Miller kissing another woman that I think is really powerful and that has really inspired me. I’ve also been inspired by – well, everything inspires me. A lot of the movies have inspired me – a lot of the movies of Visconti and Pasolini. With Pasolini, there’s a lot of religious ecstasy intertwined with sexual ecstasy, and when I think of Visconti’s films, I always feel sexually confused by them. For instance, did you see The Night Porter?
Madonna: You haven’t seen it? (She slaps a pillow like a disapproving school mistress.) Anything with Charlotte Rampling you must see. She is a genius! Images of women dressed in Nazi Gestapo uniforms – the vulnerability and fragility of a female but the masculinity of a uniform, and the whole sense of playing that out and performing, doing sort of cabaret – the movie Cabaret! The confusion: what’s male, what’s female? For me, David Bowie has a huge influence on me because his was his first concert I went to see. I rememer watching him and thinking I didn’t know what sex he was, and it didn’t matter. Because one minute he was wearing body stockings – the whole Ziggy Stardust thing – and the next minute he was the Thin White Duke in white double-breasted suits, and there’s something so androgynous about him. And I think androgyny, whether it’s David Bowie or Helmut Berger, that has really really influenced my work more than anything.
Vince: You project so many facets of femininity very strongly so it’s fascintating to me that androgyny is also part of the mix.
Vince: That definitely comes out in the Sex book.
Madonna: Yeah, but when you think of all the stuff that I did in my live shows with Gaultier and the costuming and having the two guys standing by my bed with the cone-shaped bras on. It’s always been about switching genders and playing with that whole masculinity / femininity issue.
Vince: What do you find powerful about that – or intriguing?
Madonna: I don’t know – the most interesting people to me are people who aren’t just one way. And obviously I’m attracted to it because I am a female but I have been described as being very male-like or very predatory or having a lot of male traits. But that’s because I’m financially independent, and I have spoken about my sexual fantasies in the sort of frank and blunt way that has been reserved for men. And the more people have criticized me for behaving in an unladylike fashion, the more it’s provoked me to behave in an unladylike fashion and say, I can be fminine and masculine at the same time.
Vince: It’s seems to me you’ve always been about blasting away old ideas about what is feminine and what is masculine. To say that you’re not feminine because you take charge – that’s an old idea about what femininity is.
Madonna: And, by the way, artists through the centuries have been into role-playing. I mean Frida Kahlo always dressed like a man. And so did Lee Miller for a time. There are lots of people sort of switched back and forth, but that was always reserved for fine art; in pop culture, you’re expected to behave in a socially acceptable way.
Vince: In a sense it’s easier for guys – from Bowie to Jagger to Boy George – to f*ck around with that.
Madonna: Absolutely. Because men feel safe about it. Men feel safe with men dressing like women; they do not feel safe with women dressing like men. You’re not feeling intimidated by a guy who dresses like a female, but you might feel intimidated by a woman who walked around in a pin-striped suit with her tits hanging out, grabbing her crotch – who absolutely doesn’t need you for anything. Except for one thing, but even then, you can leave after that.
(Here, inspired by the film Elizabeth, which she’d seen in London, Madonna digressed into retelling the history of Elizabeth I, including her unconventional life, her ascension to the throne, and her eventual triumph as a queen. She led up to this point:)
Madonna: But she never had public favor; it was a bit like the Hillary Clinton thing. She did all the right things for her country, but she wasn’t ultimately revered. So she had a conversation with her confidant-adviser. She asked him, when have they ever looked up to or idolized a woman? Only one, he told her, the Virgin Mary. So she said, Then I will become like the Virgin Mary, and she did. She created a facade for herself; she stopped having lovers; she became like a virgin. She became sexless, and painted her face in a white alabaster way, and turned herself into an icon that was untouchable and sexless, and then she had everybody’s respect.